You’re enjoying an icy drink, or you smile when a gust of wind blows up — and suddenly your teeth feel a sharp pain. Tooth sensitivity to changes in temperature occur because of damaged enamel or gum recession, both of which can happen as we age or due to poor dental hygiene.
Enamel is the protective outer layer that coats teeth; it covers dentin, the inner layer. When the dentin is exposed — either because the enamel has worn away and become thinner, or because the gums have receded enough to expose the dentin — it can be painful. Dentin is connected to tiny tubes, normally covered by the gums, which are in turn connected to nerve endings, which can be sensitive when the come into direct contact with cold, heat, or even sugary or acidic substances.
How do the gums or enamel become damaged enough to make teeth sensitive to cold? There are a number of potential causes. For some people it’s as simple as being too aggressive with their brushing — that’s right, you can brush your teeth too much. For others, a diet high in acidic beverages such as soda, coffee, wine, juices and energy drinks, and citrus foods like lemon or lime can break down the enamel. Whitening agents, especially the popular at-home strips, contain chemicals designed to erode stains; when these are overused, or used on already-sensitive teeth, they can strip away the top layers of enamel. Modifying these activities — by changing your diet, using straws, brushing your teeth more gently, and easing up on your whitening agents can all help.
In some cases, sensitivity to cold may be the result of tooth decay from a cavity, or gum disease like gingivitis. A cracked tooth may become infected or develop plaque buildup, both of which can have effects that cause sensitivity. Habitual tooth-grinding is another common source of damage. For these factors, you’ll need to see a dentist for care: filling the cavity, repairing a break, treating gum disease or performing a necessary root canal may also treat the sensitivity it’s causing.
Depending on the cause of your cold sensitivity, the pain and discomfort from contact with cold liquids or air may be temporary, or they may linger. Pain that continues after you’ve removed the cold substance can be a sign of a more serious dental problem, such as a cavity, so consult your dentist for treatment.
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